The Gospel reading today is from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1–7:29). Matthew depicts Jesus ascending a mountain to interpret Jewish laws. There are obvious parallels to Moses receiving and proclaiming laws at Mount Sinai. Today’s excerpt focuses on murder, adultery, divorce and the taking of oaths.
‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.’ (Mt 5:17)
What can you do to promote harmonious relationships?
Do you treat people with dignity and respect?
How does learning about the ancient context of the Bible help you to interpret the Bible today?
Matthew includes unique source material, cites passages from Mark and incorporates traditions from the Q source, a hypothetical collection of writings that accounts for elements in Matthew and Luke that are not in Mark. Given the length and content of some of the verses, a shorter option is available that might be preferable for liturgical use. The shorter reading truncates the commentaries and eliminates Matthew’s statements on divorce.
The law and the prophets (Mt 5:17-20): Matthew shows Jesus’ connection to Judaism by affirming the importance of the law and prophets. He frames Jesus’ teachings as interpretations, expansions and nuances to the laws and the prophets, not as contradictions of them (Mt 5:17).
Murder (Mt 5:21-26): Matthew depicts Jesus expanding the range of the prohibition against murder (Ex 20:13, Dt 5:17). The commandment would have originally prohibited premeditated murder in a narrow sense, not the taking of life in contexts like war, punishment or self-defense. Jesus expands its meaning to prohibit anger and animosity and calls for reconciliation of damaged relationships.
Adultery (Mt 5:27-30): Matthew also shows Jesus expanding the prohibition against adultery (Ex 20:14, Dt 5:18). The commandment would originally have been a narrow prohibition against a man having sexual relations with a married woman. Jesus expands this command to include lustful actions. Following this expansion, Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out…if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (Mt 5:29-30). The shorter lectionary reading skips these verses, which seem to suggest self-mutilation. It is highly unlikely that Jesus (or Matthew) intended these statements to be taken literally. Instead, these verses should be taken as hyperbolic statements that exaggerate in order to assert the significance of this injunction.
Divorce (Mt 5:31-32): Matthew describes Jesus interpreting a Jewish law concerning divorce (Dt 24:1-4). Jesus narrows the possible grounds for divorce and equates marrying a divorced woman with committing adultery. Unfortunately, both the law and Jesus’ interpretation address only the men, reflecting a historical view of marriage rooted in inequality between men and women. While we should not promote an unequal model of marriage, we can recognize Jesus’ critiques of divorce and be inspired to address these complexities in our own context.
Oaths (Mt 5:33-37): Matthew recounts Jesus prohibiting the swearing of oaths, which does not have a clear Old Testament parallel, although the Letter of James has an almost identical prohibition (Jas 5:12). The attention to this topic may show concern about people making false oaths, an issue which Matthew addresses later in his Gospel (Mt 23:16-22).
In these reinterpretations of laws, Jesus calls on his followers to live good lives. The Gospel requires us to carefully evaluate and glean the elements that are most helpful for fostering positive relationships with one another and with God.